'Universities already have a post-qualifications admissions system – clearing'

Mary Curnock Cook

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As surely as exam results season comes around, so too do calls for a post-qualifications admissions system (PQA).

“It’s absurd that students still apply to university and receive initial offers based on their predicted A-level grades, rather than their actual results. This situation causes uncertainty and stress for applicants, families and universities alike,” wrote university admissions officer John Wilson in The Guardian in July. The University and College Union and others have made similar calls.

The logic is compelling: it would surely be fairer for all if students applied with their achieved grades, rather than relying on conditional offers based on inaccurate predicted grades that might disadvantage them through over- or under-prediction. Around the time of the Schwartz review of fair admissions (2004), this logic was widely supported by the secondary education sector, although higher education was largely against it for practical reasons.

When we at Ucas conducted our admissions process review in 2011-12, we set out in detail what a PQA system might look like, and indeed advocated a move to PQA. But the consultation we conducted was decisive in its rejection of the proposal.

Quite apart from the logistical issues surrounding exam-marking timetables (across four countries of the UK) and university start dates, some of the strongest arguments questioned the basic premise that PQA would be good for disadvantaged students.

Although the compressed timescale for applications and offers presented real challenges, many respondents were clear that advising all their students in a few short weeks after results were in would lead to worse not better advice, and more not less stress for students, rushing to get applications in during the summer holidays.

It is also true that, for some students, having a conditional offer from a university that they have visited, chosen carefully and really want to attend is a spur to keep working through to exam time. It provides a goal and the security of knowing what’s in store after exams. The secondary education voice, presented with the practicalities of PQA in our report, somewhat reluctantly voted against the move, alongside admissions practitioners in higher education.

So where now for PQA, the perfect logic that is undoable? Perhaps the current system and the way it has changed in the past few years holds the answer. We already have PQA in the form of clearing and it has changed immeasurably over recent cycles. It is no longer the bargain basement of university admissions.

The removal of number controls in England and other changes mean that universities, including very selective ones, are keen to recruit suitably qualified applicants after A-level results day, and many offer places on a huge range of courses. Qualified students are in demand and will become more so as falling population levels increase competition between universities – we estimate that there will be 80,000 fewer 18-year-olds in the population by 2020, which could mean around 30,000 fewer potential students.

Those advising applicants for higher education could be fairly confident these days in advocating a post-results application for students whose exam performance is difficult to predict or who have simply not been able to decide what and where to study. Although this would not apply for a small range of highly selective courses such as medicine and dentistry, and of course for Oxford, Cambridge and a few other universities.

Today, the higher-education environment enables the traditional apply-early and PQA systems to co-exist, giving students a real choice of routes. And if, over time, more students were to vote with their feet and apply post-results, I have no doubt that universities would be well-placed to ensure they could attract those with the potential to succeed on their courses.

Mary Curnock Cook is chief executive of Ucas

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Mary Curnock Cook

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